Notes on Joseph Marchal, Appalling Bodies

Bodies – castrated, gender-ambiguous, trans, intersexed, foreign, female, queer, ancient, and modern – brush against each other as Marchal traces their often faint scent around the edges of Paul’s undisputed letters in his most recent solo-authored book, Appalling Bodies. Inspired methodologically through by many co-present voices, Marchal engages in what Carolyn Dinshaw calls a “touch across time” to bring partial overlaps of marginalized groups then and now (including trans and intersex). He talks about trans issues with regard in chapter 2: “A Close Corinthian Shave: Trans/Androgyne.” Here the focus is on the potentially trans masculine behavior of someone assigned female at birth (AFAB) shaving his/her head in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. If my hair is “all the glory that I bear” (thanks Lady Gaga), how does this fit into ancient views of gender roles, gender hierarchy, and crossing the boundaries of those roles, leading to some expected places of the ancient concept of “androgyny.” Marchal brings in a nice tutorial of modern transgender studies including Leslie Feinberg, Kate Bornstein, Jack [Judith] Halberstam, Susan Stryker, etc.

Although I am trans and not – to my knowledge – intersex, I found the chapter on “Uncut Galatians: Intersex/Eunuch” quite fascinating. I have often looked at Paul’s genital obsession through my own transgender lens, in which many – though not all – trans people welcome genital alteration/transformation – and this voluntaristic view might reflect the Corinthian perspective? But Paul’s renouncing of genital alteration in connection with intersex people, who, if they are genitally altered at birth – usually to make their genitals conform more to a statistically idealized female morphology – could side with Paul’s arguments. Marchal marshals evidence from the modern world of the role of intersex people in religious organizations (looking at the Catholic church’s views in particular) and ancient discussions of intersex people and eunuchs. Marchal gets medical here too, discussing the reasons why people are born across a gender spectrum instead of in a binary as well as the criteria by which doctors will alter an infant’s genitals in accordance with cis heterosexist presumptions. I found myself writing “wow!” over and over again in the margins of this chapter, as Marchal brings to the surface some of the medical establishment’s practices and assumptions – that female sexual pleasure, for example, is not as important as male sexual pleasure when re-forming infant genitalia.

These two chapters show an extraordinary sensitivity that some LBGTQIA+ scholars who themselves are not necessarily transgender can have to trans issues and how those issues can inform our readings of the Biblical text. Throughout, you can sense Marchal – and by the end admits to it – trying to write a book based upon the Pauline letters that are NOT about Paul. Does Marchal succeed? Self-admittedly not, but the tension is a productive one, nonetheless.


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